Comments: Speaking of books

I don't know about the 'engaging' bit: seemed like series of crossword puzzles, with some pretty standard thriller reversals to me. The history was interesting, but the writing was annoyingly conventional. And, for the purposes of escapist entertainment, we'll take any conspiracy theory, no matter how obscure or absurd, with the standard 'suspension of disbelief' for the purposes of a few hundred adventurous pages.

Let's face it, there's not much in there, in terms of problematizing beloved institutions, that wasn't in a couple dozen X-Files episodes. It's entertaining, and more interesting than average, but that's not saying much, in the end, for me.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at August 4, 2004 07:51 PM

If the book isn't escapist (though I'd say it was) then at the very least it is simplistic. Its alternate view of history drew heavily from the work of Elaine Pagels, and even at one point mentions one of her books. But Pagels is serious scholarship, whereas this book is fluff - a quick moving thriller with a little history thrown in. If you want to get a sense of the early Church, and how much the Catholic Church has tried to distort that early history, then I strongly suggest reading anything by Pagels - much of her stuff is absolutely fascinating. To quote the blurb from the book I'm linking to:

At the center of Beyond Belief is what Pagels identifies as a textual battle between The Gospel of Thomas (rediscovered in Egypt in 1945) and The Gospel of John. While these gospels have many superficial similarities, Pagels demonstrates that John, unlike Thomas, declares that Jesus is equivalent to "God the Father" as identified in the Old Testament. Thomas, in contrast, shares with other supposed secret teachings a belief that Jesus is not God but, rather, is a teacher who seeks to uncover the divine light in all human beings. Pagels then shows how the Gospel of John was used by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon and others to define orthodoxy during the second and third centuries. The secret teachings were literally driven underground, disappearing until the Twentieth Century. As Pagels argues this process "not only impoverished the churches that remained but also impoverished those [Irenaeus] expelled."

But despite how this sounds, I found Pagels description of Irenaeus quite sympathetic. Irenaeus saw nearly all of his friends murdered by the Romans for being Christian and he came to the conclusion, Pagels makes it sound almost inevitable, that if the Christian community was going to survive, it would have to organize. Thereupon, Irenaeus set out to organize what would later become known as the Catholic Church.

So the DaVinci Code is escapist/simplistic at least to the extent that it removes much of the nuance and complexity that's in Pagels work. Which is fine, so long as people remember that the DaVinci Code is mere entertainment, and not to be taken seriously as history.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at August 5, 2004 06:39 AM

Though I'm not religious, I'm sympathetic to Amy Welborn's complaint that Christian teaching and Christian theology are in serious decline and have been badly done for at least the last 40 years. I believe there is connection between the failures of the mainline religions and the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist churches teach a stripped down, simplified, un-complicated theology in which a few passages are given supreme weigh (Jesus died on the cross for you) and in which the complex issues of theology (can good works get you into heaven?) are ignored. And, I've often thought, fundamentalist churches have grown at least in part because mainstream churches have done such a bad job of explaining why the more complicated issues matter.

And whether one is Christian or not, I'm sure we can all agree that one of striking things about America today is how many people still describe themselves as Christian, whereas so few people can explain even the basic tenets of Christian faith. And I know (because I read her weblog on a regular basis) that this is the heart of Amy Welborn's complaint.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at August 5, 2004 06:48 AM

I don't have much opinion on the whole relgion thing at this point, but I wanted to mention that I took a class called, "The Bible As Literature" many years ago in high school and I was amazed at how much my early-life 'religious teaching' had ignored.

Posted by Anne at August 6, 2004 03:48 PM

My wife had a similar experience: after being raised Missouri Synod Lutheran (a very conservative sect, if you're not familiar with Lutheran varieties) and drifting away from it, her HS class in "Bible as Literature" was a great intellectual moment.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at August 6, 2004 04:02 PM